In 1978, as protests against Shah Pahlavi swept across Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini was living in a cozy house in the Parisian suburb of Neauphle-le-Chateau, engineering an Islamic revolution that would soon shake the world. Under the watchful eye of the French government, Khomeini met regularly with journalists and actively campaigned for the shah’s overthrow. In fact, when Pahlavi finally fled his country in 1979, Khomeini was provided with a chartered Air France flight to Tehran, where he presided over one of the world’s most repressive regimes until his death in 1989. France’s generous hospitality toward Khomeini is interesting in light of the plight of Nizar Nayouf, a dissident Syrian journalist and human-rights activist currently living, as Khomeini once did, as a political refugee in the suburbs of Paris.
In 1991, Nayouf became editor-in-chief of Sawt al-Democratiyya (Voice of Democracy), a newspaper critical of Syria’s Baathist regime, and also cofounded the Committee for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF). These ventures earned Nayouf a nine-year stay in a Syrian prison, which he barely survived. But in 2001, owing to pressure from former French prime minister Lionel Jospin, Nayouf was released and permitted to travel to France, where he received desperately needed medical attention. Following his recovery, Nayouf–who was granted political asylum in 2002–resumed his pro-democracy activism with renewed vigor.
Recently, he revealed three potentially explosive documents that he says connect Syria, France, and Iraq to episodes involving hidden Iraqi WMDs and election bribery. The documents, which Nayouf acquired from sources in the Middle East, have captured the attention of media outlets in the U.S. and abroad. They have also drawn the ire of the DST (French Federal Intelligence Agency), which has attempted to silence Nayouf by using tactics reminiscent of those employed by his former Syrian captors.
According to Nayouf, on January 30, he was brought in for questioning by DST officials, who interviewed him for several hours before releasing him. At the end of the interview, a French officer identified to Nayouf only as “Colonel Heprarb” informed him that he was to refrain from making any further public announcements surrounding the deposed Iraqi regime’s relations with Syria and Lebanon. Nayouf was also told that his public declarations have caused diplomatic embarrassments for the French government, not only in its relations with Syria but also with other countries that Heprarb refused to mention. While Nayouf was left shaken by this experience, his dealings with the DST would soon take an even more troubling turn.
Nayouf contends that following the interview with the DST he returned home, only to find that his apartment had been broken into and three CD-ROMS containing sensitive documents had been stolen. A map showing possible locations of Iraqi WMDs in Syria was purportedly among the documents taken, as well as information regarding $2 billion that had been deposited by Saddam Hussein into several Syrian and Lebanese banks. The CDs also allegedly contained information describing the establishment of a fund for the reelection of Jacques Chirac by the deposed Iraqi regime via the office of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, not to mention a list of dissidents and political organizations in Syria that received funds from the intelligence apparatus stationed in the Iraqi embassy in Paris. Colonel Heprarb, for his part, has categorically denied any DST involvement in the burglary. But clearly, as stated by Julien Dumond in Le Parisien on February 5, the “burglary” seemed suspiciously like an intelligence-gathering mission.
Reached by phone to comment on the DST’s conduct regarding Nayouf, Heprarb quickly became agitated: “This affair is finished…because this is a very difficult issue to answer about…If you will call again I will never answer…I ask that you must not call here another time.” At that point, Heprarb ended the conversation.
Apparently, however, the matter was not finished. On February 3, the DST invited Nayouf to its offices for four more hours of questioning. Incredibly, Nayouf says that during this session DST officials asked for the password to his personal computer so that they could access his files directly (one wonders if Heprarb will deny DST involvement on that count as well). Nayouf maintains he did not provide the password.
Nayouf’s recent troubles with the DST coincide with the French government’s repeated refusal to provide him with the political refugee passport he was legally granted in 2002 (and is due to him by French law). This action has prevented Nayouf from traveling abroad and continuing his work with the Syrian Democratic Coalition, a fledgling pro-democracy group led by the Syrian-born Farid Ghadry. On February 5, French foreign-affairs-ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous stated that “no measures have been made” by the French government to limit Nayouf’s movements. Ladsous also claimed that Nayouf’s refusal to surrender his Syrian passport (a passport that has not been in Nayouf’s possession for over a year) has caused the bureaucratic delay in issuing his travel documents. However, according to French law, a refugee does not need such a passport to begin with; therefore, no legal basis exists for denying Nayouf valid travel documentation. So Nayouf remains under gag order in Paris, unsure if, or when, he will be extradited to Syria, where opponents of the Baath party invariably turn up dead or languish in prison.
“Nayouf represents the conscience of every Syrian who has suffered under the Baathist rule,” says Ghadry. “I believe he deserves the protection of the U.S. and the dignity accorded to people who have fought for human rights all their lives.”
For now, Nayouf can only wish for the same treatment the French government so graciously extended to Ayatollah Khomeini years ago.
Nir Boms is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Council for Democracy and Tolerance.